We are living in a golden age of obscurest reissue labels. In addition to longtime standbys like Norton, Crypt Records and Sundazed, newer operations like Hyped to Death, Light in the Attic, Numero Group, Real Gone Music, Sing Sing, Last Laugh, Rerun Records and more have come around to track down and rerelease lost gems of underbelly noise. (Even longtime new band pushers like Captured Tracks, HoZac and In the Red have scratched the reissue itch.) And, these labels have become keenly aware that their product is of the fetishistic variety—you don’t necessarily have to buy these slabs to track down the music. So the maniacal label heads get all gumshoe about it and make sure original tapes are found (when possible) to strike the represses; artwork is exactingly reproduced; and rare extra tracks and ephemera are included in the packaging. Add Superior Viaduct to that growing list of gumshoes.
Since starting up in 2011, Steve Viaduct has exhibited excellent expertise in showcasing titles of outre amazingness, mainly focused on first-era punk and post-punk, but things quickly ooze out from there. His recent re-reissue of the DEVO early rarities collection, Hardcore, even got the new wave masters out playing those ancient oddities again on tour. This month brings a long-awaited CRIME collection. That San Francisco crew never had many official releases in their late-70s heyday, their infamy having grown on the backs of bootleggers and other miscreants to the point where they’ve gained a seat amongst the elite of the original punk era. A label called Kitten Charmer was poised to release this CRIME set last year, and in fact posted info and artwork and took orders for it without ever delivering the records. Superior Viaduct grabbed that baton and is going to try their best to honor those pre-orders.
Aside from running the label, Mr. Viaduct has a record shop, Stranded, where we caught up with him on how he does it.
You grew up in Ohio, right?
Yeah, I grew up in Northeast Ohio. “Superior Viaduct” is actually a street in Cleveland. Does anyone still make viaducts anymore? They seem like crumbling artifacts from a bygone era. Perfect analogy for an archival record label. When I started the label in 2011, I was living in North Beach, San Francisco’s Italian neighborhood that is famous for Beat poets and early West Coast punk. San Francisco has always been a big inspiration for the label. We have over a dozen releases by SF artists (Residents, Avengers, Tuxedomoon, MX-80 Sound).
When you thought of starting a label, why did you decide to focus on reissues?
For several years prior to the label, I was listening to and researching music from certain time periods: punk, post-punk, No Wave, minimalism, free jazz, etc. It made sense to take an archival approach with the label, as opposed to focusing on a particular genre, because many of my favorite records were either out of print or never released before.
Was there a record store or label that inspired your reissue bent?
ESP-Disk’ is a great source of inspiration. They released a ton of early free-jazz records by Albert Ayler, Giuseppi Logan, Frank Lowe, etc. but also some by genuinely “out” folk artists like the Godz, Pearls Before Swine and Patty Waters. To me, the best labels are ones that mix things up stylistically and, at the same time, have a clear aesthetic. Sublime Frequencies, Feeding Tube, Numero Group, Siltbreeze. These guys all do a great job and are well-curated, so I will always check out what they are up to.
What have been some of your favorite releases you’ve done so far?
DEVO’s Hardcore has definitely been a highlight. It’s a collection of their early demos from 1974 to 1977, before the band signed to Warner Bros. For fans who think DEVO started in 1978 with their amazing debut album, you have to check this out. A bit slower and darker with squawking synths, revealing a twisted blues-band underneath. I grew up in Ohio and these are my favorite DEVO songs. It was amazing to hear the band recently perform them live for the first time in almost 40 years.
What are your standards for releases? Some labels just take a rare ’90s CD from some dead German label and just cut vinyl off it, you know what I mean (although sometimes that’s the only option). Do you try to track down the original tapes, artwork, etc.?
We always try to get the original master tapes. Even then though, the tapes may be damaged or have problems. Fortunately, I work with some excellent engineers who listen to every millisecond of the master and painstakingly fix any issues. The artwork is equally as important as the audio. We always work from original material whenever possible, often including new inserts with photos or liner notes to provide historical perspective. I think that the main difference between physical and digital releases is their context. If you can hold the album in your hand, you can appreciate its beauty (sonically and visually) as opposed to simply consuming its content. In the very least, you have to get up and flip the damn thing over when the record is over.
Any good stories about trying to track down a certain artist or recording?
Sometimes it’s not so easy to track down artists or whoever owns the rights to certain recordings. I have contacted ex-lovers, family members, managers, different folks who happen to have the same name as the artist, etc.—more times than I can remember. However, one time I was looking for a very mysterious artist (named Philip Johnson) who made one album and 25+ cassettes in the UK in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. I asked everyone that I could think of who might know Philip. Nothing. Then a friend suggested that I contact Dan from End Of An Ear in Austin, Texas because he was a part of the cassette underground and used to correspond with Philip in the ‘80s. Dan was very cool, but he hadn’t been in touch with Philip in years. He suggested that I contact Paul Platypus who originally put out Philip’s album. Paul was also very cool, but he has never been in touch with Philip via email so he had to send him a letter through snail-mail. Wow! Eventually I hear from Philip who is not only the nicest guy in the world, he is a fan of Superior Viaduct. He said that he ordered from our web site a couple times. Sure enough, I checked my customer list and there was his name! So my advice to other labels out there trying to track-down obscure artists: always check your customer list first.
Has any act ever said no to a re-release idea?
Of course. It usually has to do with them not wanting the music available (because they’re embarrassed by it now), or not wanting to revisit the past in general. I respect their point of view. For me though, it’s more historical than nostalgic. I think music from the past is still relevant for the future. That is why people are interested in it right now.
Yeah, to me it’s always felt like, if I’ve never heard it before, even if it’s from 1931, it’s new music to me, just as worth listening to as if it was released yesterday. Of course maybe the scarcity of these sounds are a large part of what make them interesting. To wit, do you try to keep your releases in print, or is it important for you to keep the releases limited?
We may only do one pressing if that is all there is demand for. Most of our releases are actually not limited edition though. If we do something limited, it is usually only available via our website and has something special about it, like color vinyl or a special poster.
So, the CRIME reissue: What is different about this one from the previous ones?
Murder By Guitar is the CRIME retrospective LP that everyone has been waiting for for decades. Previous collections (like the fine San Francisco’s Still Doomed on Swami, 2004, OOP) contained mostly alternate studio-takes or live recordings. The Superior Viaduct release contains all three of their classic singles as well as nine unreleased studio recordings. This band really was ahead of their time, and this is the definitive release that proves it.
Thus far, you’ve focused what would usually be considered fairly obscure acts. But I notice you have Gun Club and Flesh Eaters reissues coming soon. Very cool indeed, but not quite as rare as previous releases. I assume those were favorites, and you jumped at the chance to reissue them, or there are extras, or what?
Superior Viaduct is not focused on obscure artists, in my view. We just put out records that we really like, and some of them happen to be lesser known. We have done releases with some relatively known artists, such as DEVO, the Residents, Glenn Branca, Henry Flynt, and Alice Coltrane. I met Chris D.—the Flesh Eaters’ singer/leader—a couple of years ago when he did a reading at Stranded, my record store in Oakland. He is a super nice guy, and we hit it off right away. It was really surprising to me that Flesh Eaters’ A Minute To Pray A Second To Die had never been reissued on vinyl before. It’s one of my all-time favorite albums. I jumped at the chance to reissue it as well as the Gun Club’s Fire Of Love, which is a perfect sister album to A Minute To Pray. Both were released on Slash’s sub-label Ruby Records in 1981. Since Chris D. was the producer for some of the Gun Club sessions, it only made sense to ask him to write the liner notes for Fire Of Love. Byron Coley is a longtime friend and champion of the Flesh Eaters, and he wrote some great liners for A Minute To Pray.
What else do you have in the planning stages?
Our next releases include: Heldon’s Allez-Teia and Brigitte Fontaine’s self-titled album. A reissue of Electricity by Peter Jefferies (This Kind of Punishment, Nocturnal Projections), as well as a super rare album by Gruppo D’improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza (Ennio Morricone). And this fall we’ll be releasing an LP collection by art punk band Pink Section and a double-45 by their sister-group, Inflatable Boy Clams.